The First Class – The First Class (1974)

British “band” The First Class” became an international “one hit wonder” in 1874 with the retro pop song “Beach Baby.” But the group pictured on the album cover were made up of two separate groups – the guys who appeared on the album, and the musicians hired to pose as the “band” on the road.

I have this bittersweet memory I often find my mind wandering back to.  It’s 2003 and I’m in Los Angeles at the beach, and I’m walking on the shoreline, right where the water meets the sand.  The waves keep flowing in and out between my toes, as I slowly wander away from the Santa Monica Pier back to the artistic mayhem that is Venice.  I’m lost in my thoughts about a certain California girl who I used to know.  A dream of a girl from a different time, she was a gothy looking beauty with long pink hair and pale skin and we’d engage in late night conversations at what was a rather confusing time in my life.  She had this cute West Coast accent, like us Canadians thought girls from the valley sounded like, and for a while she fulfilled a certain need I had to make my nights a little less lonely.  We talked about movies and comic books, love and life and our daily dramas.  We’d flirt an awful lot.  It was honestly good for my ego.  But, one night after a few years of regular conversations she just stopped calling, and I didn’t really know why.  I always wondered what It might have been that I said to have my friend go silent so suddenly.  And now here I was on the beach in LA, and she, if she were even still alive, was somewhere out towards Claremont.  So close but seeming just as far as the California shore to the wilderness of Canada.

“Long hot days, blue sea haze
Jukebox plays, but now it’s fading away.”

She popped into my mind because she always told me that she loved the beach, and I told her I didn’t understand it.  I thought the idea of her hanging on the beach was funny.  I pictured Wednesday Addams amongst the surfer guys and Barbie girls.  She laughed at me and explained that going to the beach in California was a lot different than going to the lake in Canada and until I got there myself, I’d never get it.  As I walked along the shore, marveling at the stretch of water and sand that seemed to go on forever, I understood what she had meant.  This was the wonder of the California beach.  As I wondered what ever became of her, I started to mutter a little song which sounded joyful In nature, but contained a hint of the melancholy feeling I felt thinking of my long lost friend:

“Beach Baby, Beach Baby, give me your hand
Give me something that I can remember
Just like before, we can walk by the shore in the moonlight.

Beach Baby, Beach Baby, there on the sand
From July to the end of September
Surfin’ was fun, we’d be out in the sun every day.”

It’s not a song that I hear a lot, but whenever I do hear “Beach Baby” by British musical outfit The First Class I think about that girl, and I instantly start daydreaming about California.

Now The First Class as a being an actual band is somewhat abstract.  Yes, there was an actual band called The First Class that appeared on television and did concerts, but they were in fact hired by the guys who performed the music on a record they never appeared on.  Confused?  Let me see if I can explain better,

The First Class was a late entry in a late 60’s/early 70’s phenomenon in Britian of studio groups that released a string of delicious pop recordings but were really combinations of many of the same session musicians, singers and producers releasing the songs under different band names.  But, as the singles hit the charts, and requests for personal appearances began to roll in, some of the groups, like The First Class, were forced to cobble together a band out of something that was otherwise not in existence when the single was released.

“Beach Baby” written by John Carter and his wife Jill Shakespeare as a tribute to the California surf sound. Previously with The Ivy League and the Strange Brew, Carter both produced and sang on “Beach Baby.”

“Beach Baby” was written by songwriter and session singer John Carter and his wife Jill Shakespear as a throw back to American pop music of the 1960’s.  Writing previous hits such as “A Little Bit of Soul” for the Music Explosion and “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” for Herman’s Hermits, Carter was attempting to recapture the now nostalgic West Coast sound of The Beach Boys or Jan and Dean from about ten years prior.  Filled with California imagery of cars and girls and surfing and cut offs, it was an interesting idea with some surprising results.  Although it sounded distinctively Californian, with its string section and strong harmonies, it didn’t completely recapture the Beach Boy sound and, as a result, didn’t sound like aa cheap knock off.  Instead, It was more of a memory of what American music sounded like as heard through a British filter. 

Singer Tony Burrows sang lead vocals on previous hits such as “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,” “My Baby Loves Love” and “United We Stand.” On “Beach Baby” he attempted to sing with an American accent.

In February 1974 “Beach Baby” was recorded with John Carter and friend Chas Mills singing alongside lead vocalist Tony Burrows. who was one of the most popular unknown voices in British pop radio as the primary vocalist for a lot of these bandless singles.  He sang lead on “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” for Edison Lighthouse, “My Baby Love Lovin’” by the White Plains and the primary male vocals on “United We Stand” by Brotherhood of Man.  In all three of these cases, the songs became monster hits around the world, but no actual band existed outside of the studio.

With pop culture running on a wave of interest for 1950’s rock n’ roll, via hits such as “American Graffiti,” “Grease” and “Happy Days,” the single was an attempt to take the nostalgic craze to the next era of surf rock, and it successfully manages to capture that feel for fun in the sun.  But while “Beach Baby” may seem like a celebration of never ending sunshine and beach parties, Burrows turned the narration on its head by adding a sense of pathos, shattered dreams and broken promises just below the surface.  If just bopping to the chorus the listener may miss the painful reality of the song, which unexpectedly veers its head in the trippy bridge:

“Mmm, I never thought that it would end
Mmm, and I was everybody’s friend
Long hot days, blue sea haze
Jukebox plays, but now it’s fading away.”

Just like my memories of that girl up towards Claremont, the Beach Baby was a fantasy which was fading fast.

Although eight men are credited on the LP as being The First Class, the only ones that performed on the album were Tony Burrows, John Carter and Chas Mills. The rest of the men were hired to be the band for live performances and TV appearances when the studio performers did not want to do.

Initially released as a single, “Beach Baby” hit its mark with the public and peaked at #4 on the US Billboard charts.  Oddly enough it wasn’t nearly as popular in the UK, where it only went to #13.  Perhaps it was just far too “American” for the British record buyer.  But where “Beach Baby” had its biggest success was Canada, where it held the #1 spot on the Canadian charts in October 1974.

With the success of the single, Carter and Shakespeare decided to expand on “Beach Baby” and wrote an entire album worth of California inspired pop songs which would become The First Classes’ debut LP.  With the same joyful vibe as “Beach Baby,” and with Tony Burrows singing in an American accent, the lp turned into somewhat of a concept album, with the faint tinny sound of an American DJ broadcasting music from far away America through the hisses of radio frequency between tracks as if a teenager from the UK was trying to bring in a frequency across both the ocean and time itself. 

The band hired to be The First Class was made up of Eddie Richards, Robin Shaw, Clive Barret, Spencer James and lead singer Del Jones. They were the band seen on TV and in concert, but were not herd on the actual record.

But as offers for The First Class to make television and concert appearances began to come in, Carter, Burrows and Mills deemed themselves too busy and uninterested in devoting all of their time to the group.  Instead, Burrows went about hiring a group of new performers to become The First Class.  On the cover of the First Class’ debut album Burrows, Carter and Mills are pictured alongside the other five guys that would make up the First Class touring group, although none of them actually performed at all on the album.  Making up the new personnel were Spencer James on lead guitar, Eddie Richards on drums, Robin Shaw on bass, Clive Barrett on keyboards and Del Jones as the new lead singer.   

Del Jones became the face of The First Class, but his voice was never featured on the albums. If anybody knows more about Del’s career before or after The First Class please drop us a note.

When watching old clips of The First Class performances, I always thought of Del Jones as the face and sound of the group.  I’ve always liked his look.  He looks a bit unconventional and not at all like a 70’s pop singer.  However, I have no idea what he actually sounded like because on all the footage of The First Class on YouTube it’s this second band lip syncing to the tracks recorded by Carter, Burrows and Mills.  It’s a bit Millie Vanilli in essence, but theoretically the second band could perform all of the tracks from The First Class’ album, which they’d do in concert.  I tried to find anything more from Del Jones, prior to or after The First Class but can’t find anything on him.  If anybody has an update or any information on him, please drop me a note because I’d really like to know.

The First Class released a strong follow up single titled “Bobby Dazzler” about a failed rock n’ roll singer but it didn’t catch the attention of radio stations or record buyers.

Follow up singles were released after “Beach Baby,” with the most popular being a strong number called “Bobby Dazzler” about a failed American pop star which melded together The First Class’ signature retro sound with a hint of glam rock.  A solid single, it got heavily promoted by London Records, but failed to hit.   Additional singles were released for “Dreams Are Ten a Penny,” “Won’t Somebody Help Me” and “Funny How Love Can Be” but none were able to match the success of “Beach Baby.”  After the initial promotion of the album, the touring version of The First Class was dissolved.

However, Carter, Burrows and Mills would revive The First Class again in 1976 with a new album titled “SST.”  Bringing back none of the touring members, and ruling out any personal or television appearances, interviews or touring, the album failed to gain any interest from radio stations or the public and was essentially a flop.  But through the years, whenever Carter has written a nostalgic sounding song, he and Burrows has dusted off The First Class brand and released periodical singles under the name with the final one appearing in 1983.

But, back to my own story.  Through the early 2000’s, during a time I was trying to establish myself as an entertainment writer, I made a number of trips to California but never did meet that California girl in person. I wondered about her often, but after a few years, as these things often do, she slowly faded from my mind.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the ocean.  Perhaps I should.”

That was until one day, probably over ten years later, when I received a message from her over social media and we reconnected!  Although we had both been through an entire life apart, we found that time and distance didn’t separate the friendship which we had initially forged years ago.  But our contact in the years since then have been rather sporadic.  She slips in and out of my radar.  I might go a year without hearing from her, but then I’ll wake up to a text message that came in the middle of the night letting me know she’s okay.  It’s always a joy to hear from her, and she remains to be a special friend from a different time and faraway place.


Counting Crows – Recovering the Satellites (1996)

Not long ago the California girl actually surprised me with a phone call, and we had a long, lovely conversation where she said a lot of very profound things that stuck with me in the weeks to come.  Life hasn’t always been easy for both of us, and we noted how much older we’d both gotten.  We also talked a lot about the old days when we’d have those late night conversations, and reflected on how young and confused we were.  But she noted how great it was that we could remain friends and I told her that no matter how much time has gone between talking, I’d always be a phone call or text message away and we’d always be friends.  During the visit I told her about “Beach Baby.”  She never heard of it but said she would listen.  But she surprised me by saying that she had a song that reminded her of me as well.  That song was “A Long December” by Counting Crows from their 1996 album “Recovering the Satellites.”  The key lyrics that, she explained, made her remember me was:

And it’s one more day up in the canyons
And it’s one more night in Hollywood
If you think you might come to California
I think you should.”

The song has become an interesting companion piece to “Beach Baby” for me.  While “Beach Baby” is a reflection of the past, “A Long December” sits firmly in the present, connecting the two ends of my strange friendship with that girl from California.  When I hear it, again, I daydream of California.  I am hesitant to return because, honestly, I’ve lost touch with most of the people I knew back then.  It was a different time and I was a different person. I don’t know what would be there now for me.  But, who knows.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the ocean.  Perhaps I should.

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